By William Saletan
Yesterday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., stood up in the Senate and said what most Democrats have been thinking for weeks: President Clinton behaved like a cad with Monica Lewinsky, lied to everyone about it, and hasn't had the decency even to acknowledge clearly that it matters and that it's his fault.
Lieberman's moral criticism overshadowed three deeper insights in his speech. First, Clinton's apology was insufficiently sincere, contrite, and morally emphatic. He "could have lessened the harm his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky has caused if he had acknowledged his mistake and spoken with candor about it to the American people," said Lieberman. Instead, "He failed to clearly articulate to the American people that he recognized how significant and consequential his wrongdoing was ... and his assumption of responsibility [was] inadequate."
Second, Congress' inclination to punish Clinton arises in part from his refusal to punish himself. "[T]he transgressions the president has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression for our children today and for ... posterity tomorrow that what he acknowledges he did within the White House is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader," Lieberman argued. Clinton's behavior must "be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability. We in Congress ... are surely capable institutionally of expressing such disapproval through a resolution of reprimand or censure."
Third, Clinton still has some credibility and goodwill, but he must use it to deliver the more forceful apology he has withheld. Lieberman implored his colleagues to give Clinton "time and space," to allow Clinton "additional opportunities to accept personal responsibility [and] to rebuild public trust in his leadership."
Clinton's confession should have punctured the outcry for Congress to take action. But it hasn't, because he has refused to do it right. He should have apologized unambiguously. By gazing deep into the nation's eyes, unflinchingly condemning his behavior, sincerely asking for forgiveness, and vowing to turn over a new leaf, he would have vented much of the outrage. Most people would have decided it was unnecessary and unjust to pursue Clinton further. And as Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr continued his investigation, the public's impatience with him would have turned to exasperation and outrage.
Instead, Clinton mixed his message. He hedged, fudged, and offered excuses. Rather than fully absorb his share of the blame and thereby leave Starr to absorb the remainder of the public's outrage, he attacked Starr prematurely. He thereby defeated both objectives: People are still angry at Clinton, and his refusal to come clean justifies Starr's persistence. Lieberman is sending Clinton a threefold message: He must be held to account for his behavior. Since he has failed to hold himself to account, Congress may have to step in. But Clinton can still pre-empt censure--or worse--by apologizing and atoning properly.
This morning's Washington Post brings no sign that Clinton appreciates the warning. His senior advisers are preparing to escalate their attacks on Starr, says the Post, and they have rejected the idea of accepting a reprimand by Congress in lieu of impeachment. They grouse that a further apology would fail to silence Clinton's critics and would make him look weak. And they seem comforted by the fact that Lieberman has refrained, for the time being, from proposing action against Clinton in Congress.
Three weeks ago, Democratic speechwriter Robert Shrum sent the White House a draft of the confession he thought Clinton should deliver Aug. 17. According to news accounts, it was abject and self-reproaching. Clinton's advisers laughed it off, calling it the "shoot me" speech. They don't get it. Clinton is going to be shot one way or the other. If he won't do it himself, Congress will do it for him.